YOU ARE HERE -> 1855-1856
Henry Clay’s son and daughter-in-law, James and Susan Clay, rebuilt the Ashland mansion in the 1850s with an Italianate flair. Yet, Henry Clay’s Federal-style floor plan remained at the heart of the structure, and the rooms were assigned for uses corresponding to those in Clay’s original house.
But now the interiors were much more lavishly adorned in a cosmopolitan and decidedly Victorian style. Some of the original ash woodwork was polished and refashioned into innovative pocket window shutters throughout the house.
Also added were deeply carved plaster medallions around the bases of the chandeliers and elaborate plaster cornices decorating the edges of the ceilings.
Fashionable Greek Revival wood trim with Sheffield silver hardware and particularly fine marble and stone mantelpieces brought the house new elegance.
James then furnished the interiors with the best that money could buy (and likely went into deep debt in the process). He and Susan had enjoyed an upper-class lifestyle from the start of their marriage and through their travels (including to Europe) had cultivated sophisticated taste in art and furnishings.
James often shopped on the east coast, and New York City is where he focused his shopping for the new Ashland. One of his trips to Manhattan in December 1855 lasted nearly two weeks. Staying at the Astor House and enjoying the many fine New York restaurants, James reported that he spent his days from breakfast until 5 p.m. shopping for Ashland.
Most of the finest stores were concentrated on Broadway and featured household items manufactured in Europe. But James preferred one merchant: the internationally renowned and incomparable A.T. Stewart. The largest store of its kind and the first department store in the country, James would have undoubtedly been impressed and inspired by his visits to the breathtaking “Marble Palace.” Owner Alexander Stewart often worked personally with his important clients, as he did with James on the Ashland project, assisting with the choice of furnishings and financing.
James’s December 1855 trip yielded the main furnishings for the new Ashland interiors. He carefully chose mantels, fireplace grates, carpets, and “looking-glasses” (mirrors). He ordered custom-designed furniture, chandeliers, and the finest window treatments (cornices and silk damask curtains). He chose wallpaper with French-influenced design. The carpets he selected were the most luxurious and expensive available in America at that time.
The rare and costly marble mantelpieces were probably crafted by Ottoviano Gori, an Italian sculptor working in New York. James purchased twelve mantels of different designs for the fireplaces at Ashland, ranging from the most simple for the private bedrooms to the most elaborate for the Drawing Room.
The two massive overmantel mirrors—among the most expensive items James bought—were to hang on opposite walls of the double parlors at Ashland to create, as Robert Spiotta put it, “a grand sense of space progression from one room to the other.”
While Henry Clay, too, had furnished his Ashland with items from France and England as well as fine American-made goods, James’s taste for the most opulent foreign furnishings reveals that the new Ashland was a very different place. Henry Clay’s straightforward Federal sensibility gave way to his son’s rich Victorian aesthetic.
An indispensable resource on James and Susan’s rebuilding and furnishing of Ashland: Robert S. Spiotta’s “Remembering Father: James Brown Clay, Merchants, Materials, and A New Ashland.” MA Thesis, Cooper-Hewitt Museum and The Parsons School of Design, 1990. Many thanks to Mr. Spiotta for his work!